Vatican official meets Vietnam’s prime minister during historic diplomatic trip — By: Catholic News Agency

Vatican Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher (center) meets with Vietnamc’s Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son (unseen) and other officials at the Foreign Ministry in Hanoi on April 9, 2024. / Credit: NHAC NGUYEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Rome Newsroom, Apr 11, 2024 / 09:40 am (CNA).

The Vatican’s foreign minister met with Vietnam’s prime minister in Hanoi on Wednesday during the first high-level diplomatic visit by a Church official to the country since the Vietnam War.

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican secretary for relations with states, spoke with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh about the possibility of Pope Francis becoming the first pope to visit the Southeast Asian country.

The Vietnamese state-run news agency reported on April 10 that both Gallagher and the prime minister agreed “on the need to push ahead with high-level contacts, including Pope Francis’ visit to Vietnam.”

During his six-day trip to Vietnam, Gallagher will visit Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hue. He will offer public Masses at the cathedrals in all three cities, according to the schedule released by the Vatican Secretariat of State.

Gallagher met with his counterpart, Vietnamese Minister of Foreign Affairs Bui Thanh Son, on his first day in the country on April 9. He is also scheduled to meet with seminarians in Hue and members of Vietnam’s bishops’ conference in Ho Chi Minh City before he leaves the country on April 14.

The high-level diplomatic visit comes amid a warming in Vatican-Vietnam relations. Within the last year, Vietnam has agreed to allow the Vatican to send an official papal representative to live in the country and open an office in Hanoi. 

Pope Francis also received a delegation from Vietnam’s Communist Party government at the Vatican in January, and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin could make a trip to Vietnam later this year.

Gallagher’s visit has fueled speculations of a possible papal trip. The foreign minister said earlier this year that he thinks a papal trip to Vietnam will take place but added that “there are a few further steps to be taken before that would be appropriate.”

“But I think the Holy Father is keen to go and certainly the Catholic community in Vietnam is very happy to want the Holy Father to go. I think it [a papal trip] would send a very good message to the region,” he said.

Vietnam has one of the largest Catholic populations among countries never visited by a pope. The country is home to an estimated 7 million Catholics. An additional 700,000 Vietnamese Catholics live in the United States today, many of whom are refugees or descendants of refugees who fled by boat during the Vietnam War.

Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Marek Zalewski, a Polish Vatican diplomat, as the resident papal representative to Vietnam in December 2023.

Zalewski’s appointment was a historic step toward the possibility of someday establishing full diplomatic relations. Vietnam severed ties with the Holy See after the communist takeover of Saigon in 1975. 

With the new appointment, Vietnam is the only Asian communist country to have a resident papal envoy live in the country.

The Catholic Church in Vietnam has seen a rising number of religious vocations in recent years. The country has 8,000 priests and 41 bishops, according to government data. More than 2,800 seminarians were studying for the priesthood across Vietnam in 2020, 100 times more than in Ireland.

Kimviet Ngo, a Vietnamese American Catholic, told CNA last fall that she hopes that a potential papal visit to Vietnam would help improve religious freedom in the country. 

The Vietnamese Constitution guarantees individual freedom of belief and individual religious freedom. However, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which advises branches of the U.S. government, recommended that Vietnam be designated a “country of particular concern” in its 2024 report.

Ngo’s hope has been backed by a 2024 academic study, which found that papal trips can have a significant effect on the host country’s human rights protections.

Pope Francis is expected to travel to Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries in early September if his health allows.

Read More